Porto Allegre: Gabriel Jesus scored the winning spot-kick in a tense penalty shootout as Brazil exorcized their demons Thursday to beat Paraguay and reach the Copa America semi-finals. Twice before in 2011 and 2015 Paraguay had beaten Brazil at this same stage on penalties at the South American extravaganza.
Willian came closest to scoring in normal time for Brazil when he hit the post as Paraguay held out for a 0-0 draw for more than 40 minutes following the dismissal of Fabian Balbuena for a professional foul on Roberto Firmino.
Brazilian media had been almost in a state of paranoia before the match recalling the painful memories from Argentina in 2011 and Chile four years later when Paraguay produced stubborn defensive displays before snatching victory in the spot-kick lottery.
But it wasn’t to be this time as Brazil goalkeeper Alisson saved Gustavo Gomez’s opening spot-kick at the Gremio Arena here. Although Firmino dragged his effort wide, Derlis Gonzalez also fired past the post allowing Jesus, who missed a penalty in Brazil’s last match, to take the match-winning kick.
The tournament hosts will face either perennial rivals Argentina or Venezuela in Tuesday’s semi-final at Belo Horizonte.
Brazil started brightly and produced a beautiful passing move in the fourth minute as local favorite Everton drove in off the left wing and found Dani Alves on the edge of the area, with the full-back slipping the ball on to Firmino, whose weak shot was easily blocked by Paraguayan goalkeeper Roberto Fernandez.
But then the game quickly settled into the expected pattern, with Brazil dominating possession and playing countless passes while a well-drilled Paraguay doggedly held their shape and looked to counter at pace with direct runners.
Brazil lacked a cutting edge and even when Philippe Coutinho seemingly played in Firmino behind the defence following a Richard Sanchez mistake, the Liverpool forward was easily muscled off the ball.
The best chance of the first quarter fell to Paraguay as Hernan Perez found Gonzalez unmarked at back post but Alisson saved his near post shot.
Brazil reporters had asked coach Tite before the game if he was worried about fouls, which he replied were part of the game. But three Paraguayan players were booked before half time for overly robust challenges.
It wasn’t until five minutes from half time that Coutinho got in behind the defence on the left and fired in a shot from an angle that Fernandez saved comfortably.
Tite wasted no time in making a change after the interval, but it was a curious one swapping left-back Felipe Luis for Alex Sandro.
Neat interplay saw Firmino tee up Coutinho just outside the box but his precise finish was easily saved again.
Brazil had changed tactic and were driving more purposefully at the heart of the defence, with Arthur flashing a shot over the bar. It paid dividends on 54 minutes when Firmino won a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area – overturned from the original decision of a penalty by VAR – and Balbuena was shown a red card for a professional foul. Dani Alves’s fierce low free-kick was deflected wide, though.
Brazil started to pull Paraguay’s overworked defenders out of position and Arthur forced Fernandez into a diving save before Jesus dragged an effort wide.
With Paraguay unable to pose any threat Tite withdrew his defensive midfielder Allan and threw on winger Willian, with Jesus pushed into the middle alongside Firmino. Almost immediately, Jesus missed a gilt-edged chance from eight yards out before Firmino headed a Marquinhos cross wide.
The game then went to penalties and Brazil held their nerves to win.